Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty for Energy Efficiency Now that the Clean Power Plan Has Been Delayed?

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Credit: Derek Jensen

NRDC’s Dylan Sullivan details why the ‘glass’ for energy efficiency is not only half full but may be overflowing, despite the recent court stay on the U.S. Clean Power Plan.

Is energy efficiency’s glass half-full or half-empty after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent stay of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which limits power plant carbon dioxide emissions, the largest source of the pollution that drives climate change?

Many of my colleagues at NRDC and elsewhere have already weighed in. I won’t lie: the stay hurts energy efficiency. States and electric market regions were having good conversations on using efficiency and renewable energy sources like wind and solar to reduce emissions. But, some states have stopped talking, even though smarter energy use has a major role to play in cutting emissions because we don’t have to generate as much electricity from fossil fuels. Moreover, there is no not-CPP tailwind for energy efficiency comparable to that provided by the extension of the production and investment tax credits for wind and solar.

Urging governors to maximize efficiency

But I believe the glass is still half-full for deploying energy efficiency and with momentum on our side, it could be overflowing. Just yesterday, a large group of companies in the energy efficiency industry (plus NRDC and other non-profits and trade associations) signed on and delivered letters to governors in 34 states detailing just what that opportunity could mean for their states. Every letter, accompanied by supplemental analysis for each state, shows how well-tested policies – like building energy codes and energy efficiency resource standards that require power companies to help customers save energy, offsetting dirty electricity generation sources – can get states much of the way toward Clean Power Plan compliance.

The letter – with dozens of company signatures – shows there is a lot of support and momentum behind energy efficiency. NRDC and the other signatories stand ready to work with governors and their state agencies to tap into this affordable, easy, clean energy resource.

The proof is in the numbers

Energy efficiency is already delivering huge value to American consumers and businesses. The U.S. economy has grown by 10 percent since 2007. But electricity use has been flat since then, at first because of the recession, but now from the success of utilities’ energy efficiency investments and the tightening of efficiency standards for appliances, equipment and buildings.

In 2015, alone, the Department of Energy (DOE) finalized 13 minimum efficiency standards, including one for commercial rooftop heating and cooling (air conditioners, heat pumps and warm air furnaces). That single rule will yield the biggest energy and pollution savings of any standard issued since DOE’s Appliance and Equipment Standards program began more than 28 years ago. History has shown that energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit that keeps growing back. Looking forward, future energy savings remain on the horizon both from the introduction of standards for new product categories and from updated standards that reflect technological advances in existing product categories.

Speaking of Technological Advances, walk down the lighting aisle at a big box store and the LED options are exploding. Consumers have been increasingly migrating toward LEDs. These bulbs have dropped dramatically in price, have superior performance, and last up to 25 times longer than conventional incandescents. Recognition of this migration is also reflected by the big lighting company General Electric, which has announced that it will stop manufacturing and selling compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) by the end of the year.

The same thing is happening in the equally important commercial lighting sector. Chris Neme and Jim Grevatt make this point in a recent paper that argues we can reduce total electricity use 30 percent in ten years. Between 35 and 40 percent of commercial electricity use is for lighting, and while electric utilities have made great work of switching the ubiquitous T12 linear fluorescent fixtures to more efficient fluorescent models, new LED options are much better. If installed with integrated controls, LED fixtures can use 66 percent less electricity than the lights required by federal standards.

Another example is electric heat pump technology. Early electric heating technologies – used to heat rooms, water, and dry clothes – were basically large, sometimes-well-insulated toasters. But heat pump technology – which moves and concentrates the ambient heat in the environment instead of creating it directly with an electric resistance element – is getting much better. Heat pump water heaters, operating on California’s relatively clean grid, already emit fewer greenhouse gasses than efficient natural gas storage water heaters, and have great promise as a new tool to cut residential utility bills and strengthen the reliability of the power grid.

And the list goes on and on.

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The industry is changing, too

Meanwhile, the energy efficiency industry — companies and professionals that help utilities, individuals in their homes, and other businesses save energy — is changing. While it’s pretty small in comparison to other sectors, and not always nimble, there’s a new model: focus on important energy uses in an area, understand the market, build relationships, and strategically use incentives and information to increase the market share of the most-efficient products.

Neme and Grevatt point to the success of Efficiency Vermont , Vermont’s statewide energy efficiency utility, in concentrating on an important use of electricity in Vermont – snow guns for ski hills – and working with the industry to transform the market toward higher efficiency. I also saw it in my earlier work in Ohio. There, American Electric Power hired consultants to work with large manufacturers, getting them to employ standard continuous improvement methodologies to energy use. Businesses reduced energy use up to 15 percent with little or no capital expenditure.

Many states are still moving forward

Many states, like Nevada, where I work, are moving forward in planning for the Clean Power Plan’s emission limits. This is prudent. NRDC believes there are strong reasons to think the Clean Power Plan will be upheld. If so, the 2022 date of initiation in the final rule will likely still be reasonable. And if the courts disagree with us: well then I guess we would have the added bonus of having created a cleaner, more reliable electricity system.

So you tell me: glass half-full?

My colleague Elizabeth Noll helped me write this post.

This blog originated on Switchboard,  the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Dylan Sullivan is an NRDC staff scientist in San Francisco

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